A funeral service was scheduled for Monday at Ahavath Achim Synagogue for former congressman and state legislator Elliott Harris Levitas, who died Friday, 10 days shy of his 92nd birthday.
Levitas’ political career began in 1965, when the attorney was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, where he demonstrated a commitment to racial justice. In his first vote, he dissented in the House’s refusal to seat African American civil rights activist and Vietnam War opponent Julian Bond. Levitas, one of only five white legislators to vote in support of Bond, received death threats.
In 1966, when no candidate received a majority of the votes in the gubernatorial contest, state law then required the General Assembly to decide the election. Levitas, a Democrat, cast his vote for Republican Bo Calloway, refusing to back Democrat Lester Maddox, a segregationist. In a July 2016 op-ed in the AJT, Levitas wrote: “I knew the right thing to do was to put the interests of our state above my party, so I worked to elect the Republican nominee, Bo Callaway, instead of supporting the racist candidate of my party.”
During his five terms in the legislature, Levitas also was a major proponent for development of MARTA, Atlanta’s mass transit system.
In 1974, Levitas was elected to the U.S. House from Georgia’s 4th congressional district, the first Jew elected to Congress from Georgia. The Southern Israelite reported that, on the night of his election, Levitas told supporters, “I am 43 years old, and nothing has given me more faith in America than what has occurred in the Fourth District tonight.”
In a 1992 oral history interview, Levitas said: “It was in 1974. Obviously, the Watergate world had an impact on it, but ours was still a very conservative district…I was trying to cast myself, not as an ideological purist, but someone who knew how to deal with problems, who had principles, and would fight for them regardless of party labels, and things like that. I wanted to appeal to people who had voted Republican before…I recognized that during my first term in office it would be the bicentennial of the American Revolution. So, we adopted as our campaign slogan, ‘Vote for Elliott Levitas. It’s a declaration of independence.'”
With family members coming to Washington, D.C., for the swearing-in ceremony, Levitas was able to obtain extra tickets from New York Democratic Rep. Ed Koch, in exchange for Ida Levitas’ (his mother’s) famous chocolate mandel bread.
In the U.S. House, Levitas served on the Public Works and Transportation Committee and chaired the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight. The latter investigated the Reagan administration’s efforts to undermine the Environmental Protection Agency, a probe that led to the firing of senior officials. He also championed the creation and funding of the 10,000-acre Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area as a national park.
“I was a very strong, outspoken, supporter of Israel, both in my district and in Washington; and in my district, on the basis that Israel was a bastion of democracy in the Middle East. It was the only democracy. It was a very important, strategic ally for the United States, and we had both practical and moral reasons to support the state of Israel. I never made any bones about that,” Levitas said in the oral history, part of the Cuba Archives for Southern Jewish History at The Breman Museum.
Levitas was born in Atlanta on Dec. 26, 1930, to Ida and Louis Levitas, his mother a member of the Goldstein family, long active at Ahavath Achim, and his father an emigre from Dublin, Ireland. In the oral history, Elliott Levitas said of his parents: “They both, at that time, not only were they both Zionists, my mother was one of the founders of Hadassah here. They also came out of that liberal Jewish tradition–and I mean liberal in the political sense, not in the religious sense. They were active in social issues of the day, child labor and things of that sort.”
Elliott attended Boys High School and was in the first graduating class of Grady High School. He received his undergraduate and law degrees from Emory University. As a Rhodes scholar, he obtained a Master of Law Degree from Oxford University in England. He served two years in the U.S. Air Force as a member of the Judge Advocate General’s staff.
Prior to being elected to the state House, Levitas worked in private practice at the Atlanta firm Arnall, Golden & Gregory, where he was a protege of former Gov. Ellis Arnall.
Following a decade of congressional service, he joined longtime friend Miles Alexander at the law firm Kilpatrick & Cody (now known as Kilpatrick Townsend), where he remained for 30 years. Among the cases in which Levitas played a leading role was a suit filed against the U.S. government by more than 300,000 native Americans, alleging breach of trust in connection with lands and trust funds held by the government since the 1880s. In the case Cobell v. Norton, federal courts determined that the Interior Department had breached its fiduciary duty and ordered settlement negotiations that resulted in a $3.4 billion award to plaintiffs, one of the largest class-action awards against the U.S. government.
In addition to Ahavath Achim, Levitas was involved in numerous Jewish organizations, dating back to his success in debate competitions in AZA, the B’nai Brith youth organization.
Levitas served on the Anti-Defamation League’s Southeast board. In a statement issued Monday, ADL said: “We are saddened by the loss of Elliott Levitas and send our deepest condolences to his family. Elliott was a fearless trailblazer and champion for justice who lived by his values…His career in public service — both in the Georgia statehouse and the United States Congress — defined him as a statesman who worked to achieve consensus to move our country and our society forward…We are especially appreciative of his many years of leadership and service on the Board of ADL Southeast. We will continue to strive to live up to the example Elliott Levitas modeled during his incredible life and career.”
Levitas also served on the boards of the Environmental Law Institute, the Southern Environmental Law Center, and the Georgia Conservancy. Georgia’s legal community honored him in 2016 with a Lifetime Achievement Award and the political science department at Emory University annually bestows the Elliott Levitas Award to an outstanding graduating senior.
In 2017, the AJT interviewed Levitas as part of a report looking back at Jewish Atlanta during Israel’s 1967 six-day war. He said: “My recollection of that time is that, in the Jewish community, there was a combined feeing of relief, pride and optimism, similar to and second only to, the euphoria at the 1948 declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel itself. Heads were held higher. There was a feeling that that a corner had been turned and the future security of Israel was assured even if it required the force of arms against hostile neighbors and others bent on the destruction of Israel. Israel could defend itself and prevail. Previous doubts were quelled. There was an upsurge of feelings of closeness to, and identification with, the people of Israel.”
Levitas is survived by his wife and high school sweetheart, Barbara Hillman, whom he married in 1955. He also is survived by three children, Karin (Bob), Susan (Jake), and Kevin (Claudia), as well as grandchildren, Aria and Elaiya Een, Sydney, and Annie Schwartz, and Michael and Allison Levitas, as well as a brother-in-law, Stuart Hillman. He was predeceased by his older brother, Ted Levitas.
The family has asked that donations be made to the ADL Southeast, the Georgia Conservancy, the Southern Environmental Law Center, Ahavath Achim Synagogue, or a charity of the donor’s choice.
- Dave Schechter
- Ahavath Achim Synagogue
- Elliott Harris Levitas
- Georgia House of Representatives
- racial justice
- Vietnam War
- Julian Bond
- General Assembly
- Bo Calloway
- Lester Maddox
- Ed Koch
- Public Works and Transportation Committee
- Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight
- Environmental Protection Agency
- Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area
- Cuba Archives for Southern Jewish History
- The Breman Museum
- Boys’ High School
- Grady High School
- Emory University
- Oxford University
- U.S. Air Force
- Golden & Gregory
- Kilpatrick & Cody
- Kilpatrick Townsend
- Anti-Defamation League
- Environmental Law Institute
- Southern Environmental Law Center
- Georgia Conservancy
- B'nai Brith